The Overtraining Paradox
We are lead to believe that overtraining is a ‘syndrome’ reserved for elite athletes or individuals who love excessive amounts of physical activity so here I wish to highlight an important paradox about overtraining.
A while ago, I had the privilege of assisting Jane, a trail runner from Sydney. She contacted me after experiencing great difficulty completing a 25km trail running event. Aged 41, Jane was a working mother with two children. Aside from school drop-offs, family commitments and running her own small business, she also sat on the school board and was heavily involved in her eldest son’s sporting ambitions. Amongst this schedule, she was fitting in four sessions of exercise per week. In her own words, this was ‘Jane time’ and she always looked forward to the two group running sessions she took part in. Some mornings, Jane would jump out of bed early and head for a solitary ‘head-space’ run before the children got up. On her best weeks, she would complete about five to six hours of exercise.
As Jane and I chatted we began to reveal a range of symptoms that many elite athletes describe during periods of overtraining. These were: irregular sleep patterns; suppressed heart rate whilst training hard; an elevated heart rate in the morning; daily fatigue; heavy legs when exercising; depressed mood with decreased tolerance to stressors at work and home; moodiness with the children; and a failure to athletically perform in races. Interestingly, Jane was neither an elite nor a foolish exerciser, just a vibrant, driven mother who worked hard for the benefit of everyone.
When I raised the notion of overtraining with Jane, her shocked response was, ‘but I never exercise more than four times a week!’
She had every right to be horrified by my suggestion. After all, the classic definition of overtraining is ‘a physical, behavioural, and emotional condition that occurs when the volume and intensity of an individual's exercise exceeds their recovery capacity.’
Jane is not alone. I am sure many of us, myself included, can empathise with her experiences. Have you experienced periods of depressed mood, lethargy or underachievement? If so, here is something to consider:
Overtraining = Physical Activity + Daily Stressors > Rest + Recovery
Sometimes it is hard to account for and appreciate the stress of daily life. Even when we enjoy each day’s activities, cumulatively this busyness places a load on our body’s hormonal system. Over time, this combined load of physical activity and daily stressors can exceed our ability to rest and recover. As emotional, mental or physical fatigue rises beyond a sustainable point, injuries, sickness or underperformance can set in.
How do you bring a busy adult back from overtraining?
Too often we divert straight to the concern of exercise habits. And whilst yes, this may need work and adjustment, exercise is not always the underlying problem. Rather, I prefer to modify what you can modify.
It is really hard to create more time in the day for rest and recovery whilst also completing everything else that we want or need to do. We can’t change the number of hours in a day or the fact that we must work in order to pay our bills. For an adult, exercise is often a necessary unwind, a chance for personal endeavour, or socialising with like-minded people. Simply cutting back on exercise may not be the answer.
However, often we can change small things, small routines or personal rules that have become so ingrained that we barely recognise them. Not only do they take time, but also valuable emotional and physical energy. Do any of these ring a bell?
- I must put a home cooked meal on the table every night otherwise we won’t be as healthy.
- I must agree to look after my best friend’s children every Wednesday and Friday night or otherwise I’m not a good friend.
- I can’t tell the squad coach that I need to reduce the training load or otherwise he might not think I’m worth his investment.
- I can’t tell the committee that after five years I need to stand down and spend more time investing in myself.
- I paid for Bootcamp for a year and I should go until the subscription ends.
Break the Rules
These are just a few examples that I commonly hear and a case of very black-and-white thinking. I have found that most individuals I assist are Type A personalities and like myself, we struggle to see the shades of grey. Reducing unnecessary rules, tasks and routines may be a positive start in allowing your body more rest and recovery. For example:
- Two nights a week I could just make a healthy salad with a store-brought sourdough loaf of bread.
- I might ask my friend if I can look after the kids only on Wednesday nights and every second Friday.
- I might reduce the squad coaching to one, not two, sessions a week.
- I will attend Bootcamp during the weekdays but on weekends I will do my own activities.
Secondly, we can all positively change our diet. We don’t need to go on a diet, but we can modify what we choose to eat to reduce or eliminate refined carbohydrates, unhealthy vegetable oils, excessive caffeine and added sugar. Dietary changes can have a huge impact on our quality of life, especially the quality of our sleep and balancing our moods.
Rest and recovery also need our attention. The best form of rest is sleeping but other passive and active recovery methods can also help. Tasks that are creative or mindful will nourish your body as they help to alleviate some of the stress response. Cooking, art, reading, mindful walking and yoga are great places to start. Further to this, socialising in moderation will help to support the hormonal system, especially the regeneration of our femininity.
Finally, allow the body to sleep. It is during sleep that the true physical and mental recovery can happen. During the night, the earlier sleep cycles are important for the body’s physical recovery. In the later dreaming cycles the body is mentally and emotionally repairing. Dealing with daily stress, including dietary stress, will lead to better sleep quality, and greater mental and physical performance the next day.
In summary, two common misconceptions about exercise are: training is just the completion of a workout; and only excessive physical activity can lead to overtraining. On the contrary, exercise is the workout and the recovery that follows. Furthermore, our body deals with all stressors in the same way. Therefore, the harder we push in training (volume, strength or intensity) and life (work, family, volunteer, social) the greater our recovery requirements will be. In essence, if we wish to optimise our daily performance and avoid the overtraining paradox, we need to holistically consider everything that we are doing. By reducing the summation of stress on our body, we can become more capable of performing at our greatest capacity.